Last Updated on March 9, 2022 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
I’ve noticed an increasingly common trend in the running world as of late: going from zero (i.e. a non runner) to running ultra marathons seemingly overnight. For whatever reason, new runners feel compelled to immediately jump into longer and longer distances as soon as possible, almost as if they are quickly and feverishly checking race distances off of a scavenger hunt list along the way. My gut reaction is to always tell these people that perhaps they are rushing into these longer distances too soon. After all, there is a lot to be said for physical and mental experience acquired over years of running and racing at shorter distances. But then again, what constitutes “too soon”? There’s no one timeline that fits for every runner. So, today’s topic for me to ramble on (and on) about, at length:
How to know when you are ready to tackle the “next” distance in running and racing.
Now, let me preface this post with the fact that I’ll be the first to stand up and say I’m absolutely guilty of what I’m about to write about. Pot, meet kettle.
(Actually, we’ve met before.)
But as I grow as a distance runner, I learn from my mistakes. Let me help you to NOT make those same mistakes. So let’s get to the point: this new trend of people who start running, then immediately decide to sign up for the longest, most difficult race they can possibly find.
Hence, the somewhat sarcastic title of this post.
Or, these brand new runners decide to do AS MANY races as possible, in the shortest amount of time possible, because, well…they can. Because there are so many awesome races out there, because we want all of the kickass medals, because there are titles you can earn (Marathon Maniac #3572 at your service…) because all of your friends are doing it and blatantly throwing it in your face on social media, because the FOMO is very, very real.
Believe me, I get it.
When I first started running, I couldn’t get enough of it. But when I first started RACING…it was all over. I wanted to run ALL OF THE RACES right then and there. I became quickly obsessed with trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon as well as tackling the world of triathlon with dreams of Ironman in the back of my mind, even though I was a new runner, even though I had my hands full with two babies, work, and full time college student status, even though as a runner I was so inexperienced.
And do you know what happened?
I became frustrated and burnt out, FAST. I also came down with a slew of random injuries that I didn’t attribute to the fact that perhaps my body simply wasn’t ready for that kind of training.
Back then, more experienced runners, especially those close to me, would call me out and tell me to slow down, To get some more experience before making such lofty goals. They reminded me that these races weren’t going anywhere, they’d be around when I was ready to tackle them…and that time didn’t have to be right now. I smiled, thanked them for their advice, but inside was screaming “YOU CAN’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO!” I was going to be the badass exception to the rule, I could overcome it all. Or so I thought.
(If you doubt any of this, just scroll back on this very blog about 4 years. It’s all there, in writing.)
But with experience comes wisdom, so they say, and now I find myself in the other shoe. I see people, good friends even, tackling their first 5K, their first 10K, then almost immediately are running marathons every weekend, or feel the need to put in incredibly high mileage every single week. Even though their running isn’t improving, it’s actually becoming slower. Even though the injuries are popping up left and right.
The part of me that wants to see the entire world become runners and experience the joy of running is cheering them on. The professional side of me, and what’s more, the “been there, failed that, let me tell you about my mistakes so you don’t make them too” side of me are both screaming “Woah, woah, WOAH…hold your horses there, partner” (said in my best cowboy accent.)
So how DO you know when you are ready? Is there really a rule that says someone can’t go from couch to 5K to ultra marathon? Are there really any rules at all?
Well…no. Not really.
For YEARS we’ve been told over and over that runners should follow the 10% rule: never exceed a 10% increase in your mileage from the previous week. But more and more, researchers, running coaches, and athletes are finding that the 10% rule isn’t foolproof for preventing injury, and what’s more, isn’t the limit for many runners. Some can handle a far greater increase, some need a much more gradual build up. Point being, there is no exact number for me to give you as far as how many miles you should run, how many years you should have been running, before you decided to jump up to the next race distance.
But there are certainly some rules of thumb and some pretty common sense questions (you know, the ones us stubborn runners tend to ignore) that we can ask ourselves before deciding to sign up for the next big race.
1) Are you injured? If no, proceed to #2.
If yes, stop right here. Especially if the injury is something like a chronic overuse injury. You know, nagging knee pain or plantar fasciitis that seems to come and go every other week. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but whatever you are over-using is only going to get used EVEN MORE when you decide to tackle more miles. So instead of trying to do more, take the time to heal your injury as well as figure out the preventative measures you can take to prevent it from coming back (cross training, proper rest days, medical professional intervention, etc.) I know this one might seem like common sense, but you’d be surprised at how stubborn and hard headed runners can be.
2) How are you handling your current training schedule? Are you consistent with your training? Is your body recovering well? Are you struggling to meet your specified distances, or have the workouts been a breeze?
For me, half marathon training really wasn’t too bad. But marathon training was more than twice as hard. This ultra we are currently tackling? Holy cow. After nearly 9 years of running, I didn’t imagine it could get that much harder. But it did.
Point being, if you can’t handle your current training regimen, tell the FOMO to shut up for awhile before trying to tackle something even harder.
3) Do you have the time? No, really, DO you? Because the longer the distance race you are training for, the more time you are going to have to spend training. Half and full marathon training plans will have you running weekly long runs, some (or most, for a marathon) will be upwards of double digit mileage. Towards the end, you will feel like you spend ALL of your free time running.
Which brings us to the second half of this bullet point: are you ready and willing to make that time sacrifice? In addition to the time spent running, you are going to find your day to day schedule getting an overhaul in preparation for the running. Say goodbye to late nights out with friends (you’ll be too tired anyway) and say hello to 5:00 am (or earlier!) wake up calls. When you’ve got to dedicate 3, 4 or more hours to a long run, you are going to want to start early.
4) Do you have the support? Sure, you can certainly train for longer races with zero support, but trust me when I tell you it’s not easy. If training starts negatively impacting your family life or the lives of loved ones, your training AND personal life may go downhill, fast.
Talk over the potential commitment of training for a longer distance race those closest to you, the ones that might be potentially impacted by this new schedule. Get their feedback, and hopefully their blessings. Now, I’ll be the first to tell you that you SHOULD take time for yourself to train for and achieve a goal such as training for a long distance race. But I’ll also be the first to tell you that it’s a lot easier when your loved ones are on board.
5) Are you SURE you want do it? And you aren’t just saying you want to train for a marathon because all of your friends are? Or because you feel like you should do it? Is the FOMO driving you, or do you truly feel the desire to move onto the next distance race?
I will be the first to admit, sometimes it’s really hard to make that distinction. But training and racing for YOU, and not simply because you think you should, will make all of the difference in the world when it comes to your running experience.
Obviously there are other factors, but again, they are mostly common sense. Did you just start running last month? Then training for a 100 miler, even if you meet all of the above criteria, still might not be the best decision. Impossible? No…just probably not a good idea. The potential for injuries, frustration, and burnout are just too great.
I’ve mentioned this on the blog before, but I want to share it again: years ago, my older, wiser, endurance athlete sister Holly said to me “Heather, racing isn’t going anywhere.” It sounds silly, but it is true. That marathon, ironman, ultra marathon, etc. will be there when you are ready for it. So why rush to do it all now, now, NOW?
Train smart, be patient, let your strength, fitness, and running grow. And when the time comes, you will enjoy the hard earned finish line THAT much more. I promise.
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.